Sandra Haurant meets an expat couple who are happily exploring the waterways of France on board their 100-year-old Dutch barge, Zeelandia
As they lounge on the deck of their sunshine-yellow barge, moored in the pretty village of Mas d’Agenais on the Canal du Garonne, it seems Mick Tubb, Lisa Alderman, and their dog, Dylan, may have found the perfect way of life. The canal stretches ahead, with plane trees on each side casting a dappled shade on the water and all is well with the world.
But things haven’t always been this calm. Like many people, in the midst of their busy UK lives, the idea of moving to France was a dream for Mick, 49, and Lisa, 43. The couple lived in a pretty lock-keeper’s cottage and ran a boating business in Roydon, Essex, on the Stort Navigation, a canalised stretch of the River Stort. The cottage had three acres of land along the canal, which needed mowing by tractor.
Then one day, four years ago, when Mick was cutting the grass, he had an accident. The tractor rolled over, with Mick caught underneath. He was lucky to be alive but he broke his back in several places. He went to hospital for treatment and, with his mobility quickly improving, he discharged himself only a week later. In spite of the seriousness of his injuries, Mick is not the kind of person who copes well with bed rest.
“I was bored,” he laughs. “I couldn’t stay put for much longer so I went home.” He was so bored, says Lisa, that one day she found him leaning out of the window painting while wearing his back brace.
Physically, Mick was determined to bounce back from his accident, and fortunately he recovered quickly. But emotionally, the event had a serious impact on the couple; it made them realise there was no time like the present to crystallise their dreams.
They put their home and business on the market and began to look for a property across the Channel. But what they wanted at the time was a dream house, not a boat. Lisa had lived on a boat with her family for the first 20 years of her life, and she stayed close to the canals in her job at British Waterways, from which she was made redundant. But she was adamant that the boating lifestyle was no longer for her. “I always said: ‘Never again!’” she laughs.
In characteristically unconventional style, rather than just enlisting the help of local estate agents, they wrote to the producers of Channel 4’s A Place in the Sun for help. It took some time, but the programme-makers did get back in touch and they went off on a televised house-hunt. “At the time we were looking at moving somewhere between Carcassonne and Sête,” says Lisa. “They showed us a number of houses but none of them was quite right. They also showed us some land next to the canal. That’s when we thought: ‘We could moor a boat there.’ And that’s what got us thinking about buying one.”
Before long, they had decided on a boat, and it became something of an obsession. “I’m the planner, while Mick is the impulsive one,” says Lisa. “I started looking into it seriously and spent a lot of time looking on the boat sale site Apollo Duck and arranged to go and visit some of the boats. We looked at about 10 and none of them was quite right,” she says. “Then we saw this one online, and before we had even seen it in real life, we both had its picture on our computers as our screensavers.”
They arranged a visit to see the boat – Zeelandia – in Ventenac-en-Minervois. “When we saw it, we just looked at each other and knew this was the one.” It’s easy to see why they felt at home. A large, yellow barge with spacious interior, Zeelandia is 23.85 metres long and 3.8 metres wide, and she was built in Holland in 1913. Just the sight of her makes you smile. She has two en-suite double guest bedrooms plus two further double bedrooms and a bathroom, a spacious kitchen and living area and a large deck that’s just right for sipping apéritifs with friends. “We made an offer, negotiated on the price, and then the seller went off to discuss it with his wife. He came back and said ‘yes’ and we both did a little dance!” Lisa remembers.
The couple agreed a price of €95,000 and had a further budget of between €15,000 and €20,000 to fix any problems and improve the interior. But with a property and business to sell and various other matters to tie up, it took a while for the move to come together.
Eventually, when the sale had gone through, they went to stay on their new boat for a short break with Lisa’s parents, who also own a boat. “It was December and it was so warm and sunny that we didn’t need coats,” says Lisa. “It was brilliant.”
The boat needed to be taken out of the water to be checked over in the dry dock in Toulouse before they could move over more permanently in March this year. And they haven’t looked back.
“We love it here,” says Mick. “It’s a very laidback lifestyle. In the UK, if people wanted to come and visit us, they had to make an appointment. We might have found half an hour spare on a Saturday morning. But here, there is none of that pressure. The biggest hassle is battery management and finding water points.”
Friends and family come and visit from the UK, and it’s not difficult to get back either. “Railway tracks tend to follow the canals so you can usually get on a train easily to get to airports.” Depending where they are heading… Bordeaux, Bergerac, Toulouse, Carcassonne and Béziers airports are all within easy rail reach, and have regular flights back to the UK.
On the canal, the pace of life is slow and steady, and they cruise for about four hours a day before choosing somewhere to moor up for a night or longer. They rarely stay for more than three nights in one place, and thrive on exploring the area, making new friends along the way. In the modern, open-plan kitchen of the boat, there is a little notice board covered with business cards and contact details collected from people they have met along the way. “We try to keep in touch with people,” says Lisa. “We get talking to a lot of people because of the boat, or because of Dylan. Dog owners often like to talk to each other.”
Dylan has taken well to life afloat, but one of the biggest challenges they have faced so far was when he fell ill and needed to see to a vet urgently. “You don’t really think about that sort of thing, and I found it really stressful just trying to make the appointment,” says Lisa. “But luckily, the vet spoke quite good English and everything turned out OK in the end.”
The language is a challenge. Lisa speaks basic French, and Mick, who never studied the language at school, speaks less, but they are trying to improve their skills by meeting locals and getting involved in canal life. “France is very sociable,” says Mick. “We’ve been invited to several parties in ports, and we’ve found people to be far more accepting than we were ever expecting.”
Lisa adds: “We were invited to one port party and we understood that we were being asked to bring along a ‘gâteau’ or a ‘salade’ so I made a dish and took it along. It was a fantastic experience to be at this community party where almost everyone was French, and everyone was so friendly towards us.”
The plan for Mick and Lisa from now on is to spend most of the year on the water, heading back to the UK for the winter until the boat’s heating is brought up to scratch. For the time being, though, they will continue cruising the canals. And watching them sail off down the tree-lined waters to their next port of call, it’s hard to imagine a more relaxing way to live. LF